March 3, 2004  
Volume 97, Issue 79  

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What does ‘having sex’ mean? Students don’t agree

By Anton Vidgen
Gazette Staff

Sex means different things to different people, but a recent study suggests that a lack of consensus on a definition is sending the wrong message to educators trying to promote safe sex.

Published in Saturday’s issue of The Canadian Journal of Human Sexuality, the study polled 164 heterosexual Canadian university students and found students have widely varying conceptions of what exactly “having sex” means.

Four survey participants identified themselves as gay, lesbian or bisexual, but were excluded to increase the homogeneity of the sample.

While an overwhelming 97 per cent said vaginal intercourse was sex, 83 per cent said anal intercourse fell into the definition while only 22 per cent said oral sex was a part of doing the nasty.

The report also found that more students thought sexual activity resulting in an orgasm was a more likely definition of sex than sex without one. For example, touching one’s genitals resulting in orgasm was identified as sex by 15 per cent, but in the absence of climax, only 7.8 per cent said it was the case.

“This type of information would be useful for any sex educators going into high schools,” said Ka Kat Tsang, an associate professor in the faculty of social work at the University of Toronto. “[Former American president] Bill Clinton would have loved this report because then he could claim ‘I did not have sex with that woman’.”

Tsang said different interpretations of sex does not necessarily mean students will engage in risky situations. “When people say they do not consider something as sexual activity, it doesn’t mean they won’t protect themselves during sex,” he said.

“I think that students don’t understand the extent that sex involves and the different ways that [sexually transmitted diseases] are contracted,” said Melanie Slade, health education co-ordinator at Student Health Services. “There are a lot of misconceptions.”

Even with effective sex education, Slade said students will find ways to justify risky sexual situations. “They want to do what they want to do,” she remarked, adding some youth might make themselves believe that one-night stands are appropriate. She noted that safe sex products such as condoms are not always 100 per cent effective.

But instead of giving up sex altogether, students should make sure they understand all the dangers, Slade said. “Enjoy yourself, do what feels right for you, but be aware of what the risks are before you do anything.”


Percentage of Students who include each behaviour in their definition of having sex.


Females Males Overall
Deep kissing/tongue kissing
1.9% 3.2% 2.4%

Oral contact with their breasts/nipples
2.9 6.5 4.3

Hand contact with their genitals with orgasm
15.0 13.0 14.0

Hand contact with their genitals with no orgasm
7.8 9.6 8.5

Oral contact with their genitals with orgasm
22.0 24.0 22.8

Oral contact with their genitals with no orgasm
21.0 18.0 19.5
Females Males Overall
Vaginal intercourse with orgasm
97.0 98.0 97.6

Vaginal intercourse with no orgasm
96.0 90.0 94.0

Anal intercourse with orgasm
83.0 84.0 83.3

Anal intercourse with no orgasm
80.0 77.0 79.0

Masturbating to orgasm in each other’s presence
3.9 3.2 3.7

Masturbating to orgasm while in telephone contact
2.9 1.6 2.4

Masturbating to orgasm while in computer contact
2.9 1.6 2.4



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